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Evangelism, Advocacy, and Activism in the Technology Industry

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Evangelism, Advocacy, and Activism in the Technology Industry

What's the difference between a developer evangelist and a developer advocate? Quite a lot, says this writer.

· Writers' Zone ·
Free Resource

Usually, I just head to my local office in downtown Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle that was and still is largely its own city. Today, however, I've boarded the 17x Express Bus into downtown Seattle. While in transit, as I always do, I just sat back introspecting on the day to be and the days of past while reading Jeff's post "From Evangelist to Developer Advocates" on our occupation title changes. Recently, we went from the somewhat inappropriately named Developer Evangelist to the more accurate title of Developer Advocate.

People have written about these titles in DevRel (Developer Relations) in the past, as have I. I wanted to add a few thoughts about these titles in this particular situation, and draw out some recent events where others seem to incorrectly, albeit with reason, conflate actual evangelism with advocacy. I'll wrap up with another specific word that is important — activism — and how that comes to play in the tech industry also.

Spread the Word of God! Eh...?!

Alright, let's get down to the real meat of the definition of the word "evangelism."

Evangelism: 1) "the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ" and 2) "militant or crusading zeal." So yeah, wow. Not the actual intention.

Most uses of the word all center around spreading the gospel, specifically the gospel of the Christian God in the Bible, often in a militant fashion, with prospectively genocidal eradication of peoples. Somewhere in the late 80s, 90s, or something, some tech company (I think Microsoft, if memory serves) partially tongue-in-cheek dubbed an occupation position "evangelists" that would go out and "spread the good word" of the technology. I only know parts of the myth and origin story, but suffice it to say, it was kind of a joke that stuck. At this point, it's just been a title for well over a decade or two now. One that sincerely should probably not be used anymore, as I hope nobody is militantly pushing technology on others.

Another note, many of us referred to officially or unofficially as "evangelists" have gotten hit with this association in often negative ways. For example:

Image title

Scott Hanselman's tweet

Follow that thread for the trash fire it becomes and the horror of the iWill Estate troll account. But I digress.

This is one of the dangers of tech appropriating titles and such. It tends to create societal blowback that is more than unwelcome. But on toward a better future and a better title, right?

Advocacy: "the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal" or "the act or process of advocating." Alright, now we're onto something!

But seriously, evangelists in technology aren't preachers, so being called an "advocate" is exponentially better in so many ways. It really is an occupation involved with the act of advancing, working with, and showing others certain tools, languages, or related technologies within the technology industry. In this way, using the word "advocate" in the title is simply a more accurate and effective choice. It isn't a word derived from jest; its definition aligns with the occupation, and in my not-so-humble opinion, it sounds a lot better. I am, and always will be, an advocate for many different things.

Delving Further into Advocacy

Over the years, I've done far more than merely advocacy work. I've worked in everything from labor, cooking, software development from startups to enterprises, security, teaching, enterprise desk jockey (I mean software engineer, but the difference is sometimes minimal), and a host of other work. Each had various ranges of activities that needed to be done that went far beyond the actual occupation title. A title is merely a poorly designed window that one can look into to see what an occupation entails. The real details need to be written down, and really thought about in detail outside of the title itself. The following is a list of the key things I do as a developer advocate.

  1. I write code for reference AND production. I write lots of code in a number of languages (very polyglot, much wow, very confusion). I work through the problems and plights of different technology stacks. I work with systems, operations, and all the intertwining characteristics in between. Sometimes only at a very high level architecturally, and other times at the deeper level of shifting bits and fighting pointer errors in C. The technology aspect of the job isn't just the mythical nonsensical "full stack" as the code schools say, but the real life hardware-to-software, top-to-bottom "full stack" of intricate and often frustrating detail! In summary, it's a blast if you're a curious type that likes to bounce around in the various domain problem spaces.
  2. I extensively get to (and know how to) travel, well. This one gets a little personal. I don't just book flights and stay in hotels. Often I wouldn't even need to do this but I like to make a point that I will handle my own travel, and expense it as needed. The stress of traveling inefficiently can end up being the death knell of being an advocate. It can lead to burn out, sickness (yes, actually being sick), and other health-related issues. Matter of fact, this topic will be another blog entry, or entries, that I'll write. But let's just say I travel on a semi-frequent basis at this point. A nice, cool 1-2 weeks out of every 2-3 months. Which in many ways is minimal for a lot of advocacy and related positions. More on this topic in a future post.
  3. SSO and Cartesian password nightmare management. I've never in my life had to manage as many usernames and passwords as when working as a developer advocate. The reasoning is simple: as with consulting, I often end up helping out with a lot of different systems. Also, in doing development for reference applications I end up having access to so many machines that need to be recreated, keys that need to be rolled, and related things that it is almost overwhelming. Password keepers are a life saver. Automation keeps me sane.
  4. I don't not code, asshole. As an advocate, I routinely have to deal with that one asshole at a conference or a talk who wants to try to "call me out" or complain that I don't really "have responsibilities" or related rude, crass, asshole behavior. At this point in my life, I simply disregard such comments, but I still need to manage these comments and the individuals making them so they don't detract from what I'm trying to provide and help people with. I will also admit, [TRIGGER WARNING-start] as an advocate who is a cis-gendered white male, I get the privilege of not having to also defend myself for my gender identity, sex, or related identity, but even then, it's still a pain. I can only imagine what others who aren't cis-gendered white males deal with. [TRIGGER WARNING-end] The tech industry has a lot of assholes, and as an advocate, I get to learn how to manage them on an almost daily basis. I'd rather not have to do it, but I'm out here to learn as much as I'm out here to teach others about application development, databases, and related technology. To the other 98% of people who are friendly to me — thanks, I appreciate it. Beers (or your beverage of choice) on me next round!
  5. I advocate for the developer. This can mean a number of things — from organizing developer-focused conferences to getting bugs reported to meeting with and discussing future product paths with developers and product teams. In many ways, I am a matchmaker of minds, connecting those who can take action to those who seek action or look to better the tools we use. One could say, in this effort, I'm the bridge point. I have a pretty obscenely huge contact list because of this. I'm always thinking, "Who could I connect this person with who also wants X to get built"? This is honestly one of the most mentally exhausting parts of my job, but also one that has huge rewards. What I can learn from those whom I connect often exceeds any wild expectation.

One More Word: Activism or Activist

I added this word as often, when one advocates, one also gets to work with people who are and will be activists. Before I continue, the definition.

Activism: "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue."

There's a reason I bring up activism. It isn't specifically because of the current political climate in the world, but I'd lie if I didn't mention it's part of it. Activism is also interwoven into the software industry, from open-source software itself to the free software movement. It's a very important and distinctive activity in the software industry. I bring this up because of the important parallels and some of the callouts I wanted to make. Get involved — anybody can — here's the details.

Beyond this, I've been involved in a number of activist projects that are often convergent with advocacy, albeit they often involve parking, bicycle advocacy, safe streets, urban city design, and related transportation and urban planning work.

References, AKA More Reading on the Topic

An interesting post that simply asks the question and looks at some recent conversations on the topic.

This is a comment thread on Hacker News that is pretty insightful on the various opinions surrounding the various titles. It also has some interesting anecdotal information about what people have seen among Apple, Google, and other companies, and how they orient these positions to work with the community.

This is a post that popped out at me. What does this even mean? Based on the meaning of the words, it actually sounds super creepy.

Another post I dug up on the topic reminds me why we have so many hard issues with the actual definitions of words being drastically different from their general meaning in daily use. For example, this post seems to just skip over defining the words from the dictionary as a point of reference, and just runs with the writer's assumed definitions of what they've observed of the occupations using the word.

Here are a few posts from some other developer advocates, on the topic of what developer advocacy is.

A few of my past posts.

Finally, you can read my posts about watching the awesome team being built at Microsoft here, and my good fortune in finding and joining the awesome team at DataStax here.

Summary

It's complicated. There's no TLDR. So just read and keep learning.

Topics:
writers zone ,developer advocate ,software development ,evangelism ,writing

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